Holding the line: TFRs, NORAD and general aviation
By Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher
NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs
Aug. 25, 2010
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Temporary Flight Restrictions are nothing
new, but in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks they've taken on a much more
important role in the security of events and elected officials, often to the
dismay of private aviators.
In weaponizing aviation in a way not seen since the final years of World War
II, terrorists have forced the Federal Aviation Administration,
Transportation Security Administration and the North American Aerospace
Defense Command to pay much closer attention to what's in the sky around key
events and elected officials such as the President of the United States.
|CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. - An F-15E Strike Eagle from the 333rd Fighter Squadron assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., patrols the skies over Kennedy Space Center, Fla., as the Space Shuttle Atlantis launches into space for the last time. During the patrol, Strike Eagle aircrews identified and redirected five aircraft that inadvertently violated the airspace restriction put in place for the launch. The North American Aerospace Defense Command is responsible for defending the airspace where temporary flight restrictions have been established.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. John Peltier)
It seems straightforward enough. If the president visits a city or town, the
FAA puts up a TFR, an area of airspace around where the president will be,
until he's left, restricting what aircraft may enter that area, under what
conditions and in what ways. Those TFRs are announced by the FAA in the form
of NOTAMs, Notices to Airmen.
"Pilots are restricted by time, altitude and distance to designated points to
control airspace around certain events," said James Gagnon, NORAD Operations
Division Operations Standards Branch chief. "It doesn't necessarily mean you
can't fly in there, but there are certain compliance restrictions to fly in
Gagnon said TFRs aren't a new thing, though they've gained prominence
following Sept. 11, 2001. There is always a TFR around a space shuttle
launch, for example, or volcanic eruptions. A TFR was established around New
Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon explosion to clear the airspace for helicopter rescue operations.
"They're put out there for a very good reason," he said. "Under current
policy, he (the president) will always have a TFR wherever he goes. That's
why we work really closely with the Secret Service, FAA and other agencies."
When someone violates the restrictions, particularly in a TFR protecting the
president, then you have a problem.
"Not everybody reads NOTAMS," said Gagnon. "And that's why you have these
'tracks of interest,' as we call them, that we have to identify who they are
and get them out of there."
While the FAA establishes TFRs, NORAD is charged with protecting the
airspace, Gagnon explained.
"When an aircraft enters a TFR that is not in contact with air traffic control and fighters are available, we'll have the fighter aircraft escort them out of the TFR," he said.
What happens during an intercept is fairly straightforward and done in
accordance with International Civil Aviation Organization procedures, Gagnon
said. Fighters will approach the errant aircraft and attempt to identify it.
The interceptors will try to get the pilot's attention and establish
communication, either on the radio or by visual signals such as rocking their
wings. Once they have the pilot's attention, they'll instruct the pilot to
follow them out of the TFR.
Communication, Gagnon said, is the key. Most people who violate TFRs aren't
aware of them and aren't in communication with the FAA.
"It's these people who are not on a flight plan or are flying VFR (Visual
Flight Rules)," he said. "They're not talking to anybody, and FAA doesn't
know who they are. It's much easier when you're talking to the guy."
If that doesn't work, the interceptors can become more... insistent...
employing more aggressive tactics such as dropping flares and performing
"head-butt" maneuvers, the rough equivalent of giving someone a shove and
saying, "Hey, you!"
Most of the time, the pilot realizes his mistake, or at the
very least recognizes that a U.S. fighter is flying very closely to them and
they should try to communicate with them. The fighters typically escort the
aircraft out of the TFR, and usually proceed to their destination or diverted
to a nearby airport where, upon landing, the FAA and sometimes law
enforcement will get a hold of them for an explanation.
At that point NORAD's role is over.
"Whatever they do, it's out of NORAD's hands, Gagnon said. "Our job is to
defend the airspace, and that's what we do. Once they get out of that
airspace and land, then it becomes an FAA or law enforcement issue."
Breaking a TFR is a civil violation, and the penalties for busting a TFR vary
on the circumstances and intent said Special Agent Yen Yung, Federal Bureau
of Investigation Liaison to NORAD and USNORTHCOM.
"TSA and FAA would have primacy as to jurisdiction," he explained. "Both the
Department of Justice and the FBI would have very limited roles in a true TFR
situation. The one point which would make the issue a criminal violation
would be if we have evidence to support the action was intentional and, more
Yung said in most cases the FAA decides what penalty, if any, to mete out.
"The General Counsel for FAA would make the final determination to assess
fines and fees, and the possible revocation of the pilot's license based on
the investigation conducted by the TSA and FAA," he said. "An Enforcement
Investigative Report is usually generated by the investigative agency for the
The punishment could seem draconian to someone who depends on their license
for their livelihood, but there are also costs associated with maintaining
and defending the TFR.
"Everything we do after we decide to scramble, there's a cost to it," Gagnon
said. "Whether it's FAA and the investigation they have to do afterward or
the Secret Service and their investigation as well as to launch the aircraft
and their fuel costs."
There is also a cost in man-hours, Yung said, particularly if the incident
could be a terrorist act.
"If the incident is treated as a potential terrorist act, the entire Joint
Terrorism Task Force component is stood up to identify if there is a threat
to national security," he said. "The last one I was involved in required an
F-16 to escort from the no-fly zone, and the JTTF interviewing the pilot for
any terrorist threats."
With those costs and the possibility of the pilot losing their license
hanging out there, one might think that a TFR violation is rare.
"TFRs are broken all the time," Gagnon said. "You have to figure there are,
during the course of the day, not only the thousands of commercial and
general aviation aircraft, but private civilian aircraft that are flying in
the United States. The chance of a few of them busting a TFR are fairly high,
and that's what we see."
Why so many? According to Craig Spence, Vice President of Operations and
International Affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, it's a
breakdown in communication coupled with a confusing system of getting the
information into the hands of pilots in the first place. He said NOTAMs can
be difficult to find and hard for some people to understand, which inevitably
leads to pilots violating TFRs purely on accident.
"Some of these folks don't even know it's (the NOTAMs) out there," he said.
"We're sticklers for rules. Our whole process is regulated, and we're used to
these type of things, but if you don't know the rules, you can't play the
One issue causing TFR violations, Spence said, is how quickly they can be
established or changed, often with very little time to notify the pilots. He
used a presidential trip to Chicago as an example.
"The Chicago TFR changed seven times in a five-day time period," he said in regards to a TFR established for President Barack Obama’s visit to the city in May. "It
got to be a rather complex set of flight restrictions that became cumbersome.
A lot of the time, these are last-minute TFRs that are popping up, and I may
already be airborne at that point in time or the TFR may shift due to sudden
changes in the VIP's movement. These are some of the ones that really get us
in the biggest problems."
Gagnon acknowledged that TFRs can change, particularly when a VIP has to move
around but said pilots are required to check all appropriate NOTAMs and
should be aware of established TFRs, particularly when flying around large
"A lot of private pilots are out there just flying VFR," he said. "They don't
check them. They don't make it a habit of checking them, and when you start
to fly around bigger cities it's probably a good idea to do so. Most of the
problems we have are with civilian aviators who are not used to flying around
those kind of areas like D.C. or New York, or they are used to it and just
aren't used to flying around with a TFR in place. I think the same thing is
going to happen with Chicago that happened with Crawford when President Bush
would visit his ranch in Texas. As you get more and more education on these
specific TFRs that are on-going or frequent, you're going to get better
compliance, and you won't have as many problems."
Education as a way to decrease TFR violations is one of the areas where
Spence and Gagnon agree. One of the services AOPA provides is a "plain
language NOTAM," taking what the FAA puts out and making it easier for pilots
to understand. They also provide graphical representations of the TFRs they
know about and e-mail pilots within a certain radius of TFRs, letting them
know that they're there.
"A local outreach is critical," Spence said. "If you can get the word out to
these people in time as they're starting to do their preflight planning, that
would be a significant improvement."
NORAD, meanwhile, has developed their own outreach program to provide the
NORAD perspective of air defense operations, including the rules and
procedures general aviation pilots must follow and the procedures used by
NORAD fighter and helicopter intercept pilots. The briefings are given to FAA
air traffic controllers and general aviation pilots, often by NORAD
headquarters pilots who have both alert and commercial airline experience.
Douglas DalSoglio, NORAD Operations Division analyst, said they try to
conduct the briefings around airports where large events are scheduled to
take place, such as around Chicago in preparation for presidential visits.
"We go to most of the small airfields in the area," he said. "NORAD briefed
over 850 general aviation pilots at AirVenture 2009 in Oshkosh, Wis. General aviation outreach briefings have also been given to pilots prior to events like the Republican
and Democratic National Conventions, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic games,
presidential trips and FAA Safety Team presentations at local airports around
DalSoglio said the there have been tangible effects.
"The rate of violations that we've seen over the last nine years has gone
down due to the continuing education and getting the word out," he said.
Spence said he would like to see TFRs go away altogether but realizes that
isn't going to happen in the present security climate. In the meantime, he
said he wants to see more advanced notice on TFRs and a more "realistic
application" of them, using them when necessary and not as a "status symbol"
for events. Having TFRs for the sake of having them, he said, isn't security.
"If there is a security threat then the assets need to be positioned to
defend against those threats," he said. "A TFR without that defense is, in
essence, useless. All we're doing is keeping the honest people out,
separating compliance from noncompliance."
The subject of TFRs is a contentious one, with one side saying they're
necessary for security, and the other, private pilots like Spence, saying
they're a burden unlike any found in any other form of transportation.
The debate continues even as the threats do. In February, Andrew Stack
crashed a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. In April 2009,
a plane stolen in Canada was tracked by NORAD fighters as it flew to
southeast Missouri while government buildings in the aircraft's path were
evacuated. NORAD, which for 50 years was prepared to intercept and engage
Soviet bombers over Canada and Alaska, has found itself busier than ever
defending the U.S. from the possibility of light aircraft stuffed with bombs
and hijacked airliners loaded with fuel.
Whereever a person positions themselves on the TFR debate, one thing is
clear, according to Gagnon. NORAD will continue to defend the airspace for as
long as they're asked to.
"The Secret Service has determined they are necessary," he said. "And the FAA
establishes the TFRs. They have asked NORAD to assist in defending the
airspace. It's not for us to determine that they're necessary. Our job is to
defend the airspace, and that's what we do."